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A Journey of Self-Realization

Surga Thilakan and Sreeraman Vaidyanathan began their entrepreneurial journey at IIMA. Upon graduating, Surga went to work at Goldman Sachs, London, while Sreeraman joined Microsoft, Hyderabad.

Surga, however, yearned to derive a deeper meaning from her work. “Finance and banking do not matter to a person on the street,” she says. Wanting to doing impactful work, she quit, came back to India, and joined a small microfinance company named Ujjivan, to understand one of the critical problems plaguing the country. During the same time, Sreeraman had started exploring the field of education. He had joined an Ahmedabad- based firm to understand how corporates can participate in education. With her tenure at Ujjivan getting over, Surga and Sreeraman came together to co-found iStar.

Aiming to meet the growing need for medium-skilled labourers in India, iSTAR addresses the vexing ‘employability gap’. They provide skill training and recruitment services to college students across the nation. Today, iSTAR is an accredited partner institution of the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) and has trained and placed over 20,000 students across 10 states, while raising multiple rounds of venture funding from NSDC, Unitus Seed Fund, and Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

While the objective was earnest, their journey has been fulfilling yet challenging. As with most startups, there was not enough capital to go around when they began. They did not even have an office to call their own. Until another IIMA alumni provided them with a room, their ‘office’ was an ‘extra room on the terrace.’ With iStar based out of Karnataka, Sreeraman had to learn Kannada quickly to communicate with slum-dwellers. Early on, they also did not know where the next round of funding would come from or if a contract they worked hard for would fall in place.

“It requires a certain level of insanity to keep doing it.”

Understanding people has helped Surga overcome the hurdles that have come her way. For Sreeraman, it has been perseverance and his ability to solve problems differently.

Even in the most difficult of times, the duo’s innate confidence, that things do work out ultimately, has kept them going. After all, they are on the path of doing good. “The night is the darkest right before dawn,” Sreeraman would often say this to Surga and the duo kept at it, undeterred.

They fondly remember the graduation ceremony of their first batch of students. With almost all the students acquiring jobs, the memories of the joy and pride of families of these students still warm the hearts of these two driven entrepreneurs. While setting up iStar, they had a close, and perhaps a little unsettling, tryst with hyper-ambiguity, where the rules of the game were changing every second — a sea change from their earlier jobs. Was it fulfilling? ‘Yeah!’ they say emphatically. Would they do it again? ‘Without a doubt!’ they beam.


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